Obscenity in Literature: How Parents Can Win the Fight

In the Beginning

When I was first alerted to the idea that there is sexually explicit materials in school libraries, I thought there had to be some mistake and it must be an isolated occurrence. Was I wrong! I was shocked thinking about how quickly things have changed since I left the classroom.

Someone showed me a picture in a graphic novel, i.e. comic book, but it is graphic in both definitions of the word. When the book was shown to me, I immediately thought, “This is a wrong you can’t walk away from.” I knew I had to do something to stop the spread of this cancer in our schools, because if left alone, it will get worse.

Not too long after learning of the books, I had lunch with an attorney. I mentioned the situation to her and she directed me to the Oklahoma statutes on child pornography and obscenity. That afternoon, I did a deep dive into the laws. I identified language that I thought for sure could be used to remove books with inappropriate content, but quickly found the problem to be that the law has never been used to challenge the written word. Even after hearing this, I was not discouraged, but more than ever determined to find a solution.

Pretty quickly stories from other states started to surface. States like Texas and Virginia were addressing the issue. The next thing I know I’m seeing posts and hearing stories about parents reading from books at school board meetings right here in Oklahoma. Soon announcements were made of school board members making decisions to leave obscene materials and in some cases, pornography, in their libraries. This news was just as shocking to me as the content of the books.

My research connected me to many parents across the state who were searching school libraries, hearing of books being in classroom collections, searching online libraries and seeing these types of books being featured on displays geared toward young children in public libraries.

The books I have seen and read excerpts from are without question, either obscene or in some cases pornographic. Every time I’m shown another picture or excerpt I hesitate wondering if it can get any worse than the ones I’ve already seen. Some contain violent rape scenes, some pedophilia, orgies and others have very graphic sex scenes.

The Disturbing Impact

Over the last three years, I have spent a vast amount of time working in the space of childhood trauma and helping to kick start the conversation in schools in the area. Much of our violence and behavior challenges in the classroom are caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Naturally, my thoughts went to wondering how early exposure to sexual content impacts children and later into adulthood.

During a conversation I asked a friend, a former attorney for the federal bureau of prisons, how many of our men (and women) who are incarcerated for sexual crimes had been exposed to sex at an early age either through abuse or pornography. He speculated that probably 99% of them had had some type of exposure.

I didn’t look into those incarcerated, but did find articles on how porn impacts children and what types of behaviors are seen in kids exposed at an early age. Children and young people who are exposed early have been known to become addicted to porn and/or addicted to sex which often leads to drug and alcohol addictions and teen pregnancy. In some cases, exposure leads to sexual violence, sexually deviant behaviors, even molestation and rape. Since I started my investigation and began engaging in conversations about the problem, awareness has certainly been escalated, but not nearly enough to create the outrage that is needed for school boards, school leaders and their respective associations to take notice. There have been debates on social media surrounding the issue and private messages from teachers afraid to voice their support for legislation, and very little discussion from our local media outlets.

When given the opportunity, I have shared some thoughts about sexually explicit materials in the written form to give them perspective. Think about the diversity in the materials marketed to women as opposed to men. A somewhat mainstream and arguably acceptable form of pornography for women is romance (erotica) novels: some are more graphic in nature. Erotica is a billion-dollar industry that outsells all other genres. The written word and stories of love, relationships and romance appeal to women. Contrast that with pictures and videos which appeal to men that astoundingly is a 10-billion-dollar industry. Tragically, the human toll on the lives of the men and women, boys and girls who become addicted to it is immeasurable.

Studies show pornography has the potential to destroy relationships and marriages.  A study of college students in Ohio who were asked about pornography use stated that the emotional impact of pornography led to depression, anxiety, social withdrawal and difficulty in classes. If our adults and young adults struggle to deal with its effects, can you imagine the impact on our children?

I’ve read several studies outlining the demoralizing effects pornography has on our youth. With the majority of them walking around with computers in their pockets and purses, it is just a click away. It can be difficult for parents to monitor cell phone usage and many do not understand what an epidemic it has become. Consider this statistic; the majority of children own a mobile device by the age of 7 and phone ownership is a shocking 90% by the age of 11. Thirty-nine percent said they could not live without their phones. These are devastating numbers considering the access to the internet. I’m reminded of a story of 9-year-old little girl who has had her innocence robbed from her through an addiction to pornography most likely accessed through a mobile device. Couple mobile access with the reality that many students have access to their online library, which has no age filter and millions of titles at their fingertips, and these statistics become staggering.

The thought sickens me of how many of our children have been exposed at early ages and then go untreated. The child could potentially deal with the guilt and shame for the rest of their lives. I have to wonder whether this could be one of the issues plaguing our young people struggling in school with reading, math and behavior issues.

A young lady reached out and thanked me for running legislation to try to address this atrocity. She spoke of violence, inappropriate touching and vulgar, suggestive language used by some of the boys in her high school. While most of that cannot be attributed to books, we won’t know of the entire scope of damage done to the young minds of boys and girls in our schools that are exposed to content too graphic for our young people until studies have been done on the subject. Because the matter of sexually graphic reading materials for young people is just coming to light, I can find no research of its effects on our young people. I have to guess that it has the potential to lead to all the same behaviors as pornography. It exposes, normalizes and desensitizes our children to sex crimes. It’s the type of exposure that makes it possible for evil people, like the ones we’ve recently heard about in the news, to traffic young people for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

It sounds so hyperbolic and outlandish, I know, but until you have witnessed it, and I hope you don’t have to, please believe me when I say, it is NOT OKAY. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has stated pornography and sexually explicit content, if it violates the obscenity law, is not protected by the first amendment.

The Goal

We can all agree local control is vital. No two communities are the same and district leaders need to be able to create appropriate policy for the needs of the individual communities especially when looking across lines of inner city, urban, suburban and rural districts.

When I’ve had the opportunity to visit with school leaders and board members several of them have had the same response, “That’s not happening in my school.” But shouldn’t the response be, “I hope that’s not true in my district. I will check it out and address the issue immediately.” The first response creates distrust and is part of what is driving the school choice narrative. The second response is what provides peace of mind and creates trust between parents and school leadership.

To be clear, in no way do I think all librarians in Oklahoma or across the nation want obscene materials in the hands of children and our young people. Nor do I believe that all books that have surfaced on lists deserve to be removed from schools altogether. In no way do I support or condone book banning or burning. While not all districts have materials that are inappropriate for the k-12 setting, it is the job of the school board members and school leadership to ensure schools that do are bound by school policy to remove it and those that do not, never have the opportunity to provide it.

The goal of every school board should be to establish book boundaries and deselection policies to adhere to when materials are found to violate state obscenity law, cross community standards and/or break school decency handbook policy. School boards and school leadership, along with teachers and librarians need a way to evaluate content to determine its appropriateness based on age of the viewer or reader much the same as choosing a movie to watch, music to listen to or a video game to play. This is not banning; its ensuring students are provided content appropriate for age and maturity level.

It’s Our Responsibility

There are three certainties in this fight: First, there ARE schools in Oklahoma with obscene materials on their shelves. Secondly, even if they’re not in your school now, that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future. Lastly, policy can be created as a defense against it, but it will take moral and brave school board members to make that happen. If school boards and district leaders are refusing to address the issue either through denying it exists or voting to retain the materials, you and the parents in your district have the power to recruit and replace them. You have an opportunity to be a voice for the children. Your local school board can adopt policy to get pornography and sexually explicit content out of school libraries.  
Let us not stop until we have won this battle. This is about the minds, hearts and souls of our young people. If you haven’t yet joined this fight, there are parent organizations such as School Boards for Kids, across the state and the nation working to expose this crime against children. Join one today.

We will win. Truth and Light always do.